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On the Outside, Looking In

AF recently interviewed Phil Bertelson, an award-winning filmmaker and transracial adoptee.



Phil Bertelsen, age 37, grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey, in the 1970s. An award-winning filmmaker, Bertelsen has written and directed Outside Looking In, a documentary examining transracial adoption in America. He currently lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York.

AF: Tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your family like?

PB: I grew up in a family of seven children. While Iím not the youngest, I was the last to arrive to what was an adoptive family with two children from Korea; one Caucasian (my brother left on the stoop of a local church); myself, a biracial African-American; and three children born to my Norwegian parents. We grew up in a relatively diverse, but segregated suburb in central New Jersey. Our family was the only family of color in our part of town. We didnít come into contact with other children of color until we attended the junior high school across town. We were raised in an environment that did not entertain conversations about three things: race, religion, and money. Iím not entirely sure why, but when those subjects happened to come up, they usually led to an uncomfortable debate. My parents were very Scandinavian in that way. They avoided confrontation at all costs.

AF: When did you first become aware of racism?

PB: My first encounter with racism occurred when I attended junior high school and came into contact with other students of color for the first time. There was a school-wide race riot, and I had to choose sidesóblack or white. This was not something I was accustomed to or equipped to do. In the meantime, my blonde "girlfriend" at the time told me we could no longer be together because her mother didnít want her to be seen with "a nigger." Until then, I didnít know what that meant, let alone think that I might be one.

AF: Growing up, did you ever feel isolated or alone?

PB: Yes. Being the only child of color in an all-white neighborhood school made classes isolatingóan isolation that, as a child, I couldnít identify. So I tried to fit in by being a "class clown." I felt a part of the group when I made other kids laugh. Unfortunately, my teachers werenít so appreciative or understanding, and I was sent to the principalís office, repeatedly, for disciplinary action.

AF: Did your family expose you in any way to other African-American adoptees or to members of the black community?

PB: No, they did not. Iím not exactly sure why; but I donít think they felt it was important. "A child is a child is a child," my mother would say. "They all have the same likes and dislikes."

AF: What experience in your life helped you to connect with the African-American community? What helped you to develop a positive sense of identity?

PB: Being around students of color at college (and having a black college roommate) changed my perspective and enabled me to recognize and better appreciate who I was historically, culturally, and emotionally. For the first time in my life, I was in a peer group that I resembled and, who, unlike me, came from a black cultural experienceóone built on pride and heritage, and for whom black culture was not a curiosity, but a way of life. It taught me to move beyond the questioning and learn about what I was missing.

AF: What advice would you give to prospective white adopters or white families raising black kids?

PB: The one thing I would say is "Be not afraid!" Go outside your comfort zone to embrace your childís culture of origin. Attend services at faith institutions in communities where your childís culture of origin is dominant. Patronize the local businesses in those neighborhoods and make acquaintances. Those allies can be useful later as they might be willing to act as mentors to your child, should that be necessary. Recognize that there will be thingsóculturally speakingóthat you cannot give to your child. Itís good to have others in your life whom you can rely on for that. I would also suggest that you move to such neighborhoods if possible, or consider placing your child of color in a diverse school environment, if nothing else.

Do this not for your childís sake, but for yours as well. It can be a life-enriching experience beyond your imagination, but it requires a commitment that will sometimes be uncomfortable. Ultimately, though, it will make you the truly multiracial family that you have become and give your child a fighting chance at having a positive self-image in a world that doesnít necessarily promote it.

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